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The Local Food Shift: What every public official, political candidate and voter should know


This article first appeared in the Boulder Weekly.

The local food shift is gaining significant traction in Boulder County, growing well beyond the euphoric early adopter stage into early majority territory. It is unfolding so rapidly and so unpredictably that it could well be called a revolution.

If it hasn’t already, the issue of local food is about to land on the desks of public officials and political candidates, perhaps even in unexpected ways. One candidate, aware of this shift, contacted Transition Colorado and requested “talking points” on this important issue. What follows here is a very preliminary and incomplete briefing intended to help all officials and candidates quickly bone up on some of the major issues and prepare to deal with the challenges that are coming their way.

Since our current food-related laws and policies were created — and most public officials were elected or appointed — long before the local food shift began to take hold, familiarity with these issues could be crucial not only to candidates’ political future, but also the well-being of the communities they serve.

Roots of the local food shift

The essence of this nascent movement is food localization — shifting from the globalized, industrialized food system on which we all are dependent for our food needs to a resilient and self-reliant locally based food supply system, where communities are able to provision their own essential food needs by relying on bio-intensive production methods that restore soil, rekindle connection with the land and rebuild community.

The upcoming EAT LOCAL! Week (Aug. 27 through Sept. 4), organized by Boulder-based Transition Colorado, could be seen as an early cultural expression of the local food shift in Boulder County, combining a community celebration of local food and farming, an experiential connection with the local culture that is emerging around local food, and the recognition of new food and farming enterprises that may presage a new era in the local economy.

What it all portends is that many people in Boulder County are making the local food shift in earnest.

The significant benefits of food localization are well known and worth repeating:

Health: Returning to a seasonal, mostly organic local diet will significantly improve the health of our communities, especially our children, and dramatically reduce health care costs.

Environment: Shrinking our “foodshed,” which now stretches around the globe, will not only reduce food-miles, but bio-intensive cultivation methods will also sequester carbon in the soil, making food localization one of the most effective approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Economy: Rebuilding our local food system is one of the most important strategies for strengthening our local economy; food localization can create new jobs and generate hundreds of millions in new economic activity.

It should be said that this local food shift is not the reincarnation of the “back to the land” movement, nor a nostalgic return to an imagined past. While the movement occasionally draws upon ancient and even indigenous knowledge, its roots are much more recent.

Demand for access

For many, the local food shift appears to have emerged spontaneously over the past several years from a demand among our citizens for increased access to fresh, organic, healthy food grown close to where we live, preferably by people we know and trust — maybe even by ourselves. It was what we wanted for our children, for our families, for our own bodies and for our own well-being.

Inspired and informed by authors and speakers like Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, Joel Salatin and Will Allen, and jarred awake by such films as Food Inc. and The World According to Monsanto, many people saw something new appearing in our troubled society, an inspiring cultural shift. Long before anyone was calling it a movement, there was something wholesome about this local food shift. And there was a strong undercurrent of joyfulness, even fun, as we began to rediscover our connection with land and neighbors and food.

Preparing locally for the global food crisis

However, from the very beginning the movement was more deeply guided by an underlying but often unspoken realization that it was imperative for our communities to learn how to feed themselves again; that it was necessary to begin to wean our communities from dependence on globalized industrialized food systems; that it was necessary to reclaim our food sovereignty and develop resilience and self-reliance in our food supply at the community level.

The reasons for these necessities are essential to understand.

This perspective will be new to and/or denied by many local residents, but these are the core dynamics:

A convergence of global crises — inevitable fossil fuel depletion (aka “peak oil”), compounding effects of climate change, and unstable shrinking global economies — is likely to disrupt the global food supply in unexpectedly devastating ways.

A thorough analysis of these factors leads to an inescapable conclusion that the growing global food crisis will soon land in our own communities — yes, even in Boulder County.

Therefore, it is now essential (and unavoidable) to shift quickly from a globalized/industrialized food system to one that is far more local, far more human-labor-intensive, and far less dependent on fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides — as well as for processing, storage, cooling, heating and transportation.

Each person will want to do his or her own corroborating homework, of course, but once each of us grasps these dynamics, we will realize that there is little choice but to rapidly localize our food system to the maximum extent possible. The critical issues are: How long will it take us collectively to recognize this? And how long will it take us to respond at the scale that will be needed?

A tale of two cultures

Public officials will discover that some of their constituents are not happy about the prospects for food localization and may consider it a threat to their way of life. On the simpler side, some residents adamantly oppose having small agricultural operations in their neighborhoods, even if it’s rural, complaining of sights, sounds and smells that they consider unpleasant and fear will reduce their property values.

Meanwhile, the most vehement proponents of conventional farming — sounding like the agricultural equivalent of the Tea Party — charge that the move towards local and organic food production amounts to nothing less than a form of neocolonialism, complaining, “You’re trying to shove ‘organic’ down our throats.” Export commodity farmers (who receive substantial federal subsidies) claim that for local government to support local organic food production (which is completely unsubsidized) is unfair and are pressuring current county commissioners to curb their apparent enthusiasm for food localization.

There is a profound culture clash taking place here, often driven more by emotion than reason.

This conflict can be witnessed firsthand in the spectacular if slow-moving drama currently unfolding around the controversy over the use of genetically modified crops on county-owned open space land.

It’s worth noting that “conventional” or “traditional” agriculture has only been around since World War II, largely the result of big chemical companies persuading farmers to become dependent on fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The methods and technologies of the so-called Green Revolution may have temporarily increased crop yields, but they have also unleashed a storm of unintended consequences including soil degradation, massive environmental pollution, reduced biodiversity, an epidemic of food allergies and other food-related diseases, and ever-greater dependence on fossil fuels, fossil water and agrochemicals.

Such industrialized agriculture is destined to go through a radical shift, because it is a profoundly unsustainable system that contributes a significant percentage of our greenhouse gas emissions — as much as 31 percent, if the whole system of processing and transportation is included. It’s heavily dependent on fossil fuels for fuel, artificial fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides, antibiotics and global shipping. Conventional agriculture will inevitably transition to a more bio-intensive system, one that is largely organic (though not necessarily certified).

Barriers to localization

Sadly, there are many barriers to increased food localization, and elected officials may be asked to shape policies and regulations to ease them:

The lack of a local food infrastructure — for processing, storage, distribution and marketing — is one of the main reasons why less than 2 percent of the total amount of food we consume in Boulder County (a whopping $947 million in 2010) is actually grown here.

There is a significant shortage of qualified young farmers, even to meet the current mandate to have just 10 percent of the county’s open space land devoted to food production for local consumption.

Farmland is extremely expensive in Boulder County, making the cost of entry for new farmers very high. Financing is often very difficult to obtain.

Limited infrastructure, particularly in processing and distribution, means that many local growers and ranchers do not have ready access to potential markets for their products.

Adequate labor is also problematic. Commodity agriculture has largely supplanted human farm labor with heavy machinery. But organic speciality-crop agriculture is highly labor-intensive.

In addition, many farmers consider existing land use codes to be one of the greatest limiting factors to increased food production and farm business diversification. Those seeking approval for season-extending greenhouses and hoop houses (even root cellars), residences on farmland, and agri-tourism often run into a buzzsaw of onerous regulations and bureaucratic paperwork that leaves them in despair.

‘Slow Money’ and the local food shift

The recent arrival of the Slow Money approach to food localization — based on Woody Tasch’s extraordinary book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered — turns out to be one of the key enablers of the local food shift: new forms of local investment “that catalyze the transition from a commerce of extraction and consumption to a commerce of preservation and restoration.” This means, especially, investing in local farming and in the enterprises that are needed to support a healthy food and farming system.

Slow Money is all about “Restorative Economics,” following the core principles of carrying capacity, cultural and biological diversity, sense of place, care of the commons and nonviolence. This may be one of the most significant economic visions to land on this planet in recent decades.

One of the goals of Slow Money is that over the next 10 years one million Americans will invest 1 percent of their assets in local food systems. As a result, new food-related enterprises are beginning to emerge in Boulder County, fueled by Slow Money investments in the form of microloans and joint ventures. Some of these initiatives will be unveiled at an investors briefing during EAT LOCAL! Week on Sept. 1, and Slow Money founder Woody Tasch will be a keynote speaker that evening.

Attendance at these events could be very important and meaningful to a political candidate’s constituents.

What we need to know about GMOs

For some, the burgeoning local food shift is a direct response to the nightmarish takeover and corruption of our food supply by big agribusiness. For a nation founded in the name of freedom and equality, it is painfully ironic that we have unwittingly allowed major corporations to undermine our food sovereignty and food security.

There are complex and controversial issues here. But for now, consider that at the very moment that the local food shift seems like it’s beginning to take hold, global forces of the biotech industry and big industrial agriculture are making bold moves to gain pervasive control over our food supply through genetic engineering. We’re no longer just talking about GMO sugarbeets, feed corn, soybeans and cotton. Monsanto has recently announced the advent of GMO sweet corn, the first consumer product actually developed by Monsanto.

A recent article in Fast Company tells the tale: “Up until now, the company’s GM crops have only been available in processed foods — in other words, in little bits and pieces. But now Monsanto is making a move into the consumer market with GM sweet corn, which will be found in a supermarket produce bin or farmers’ market near you starting this fall.”

Monsanto cucumbers and other table vegetables are reportedly soon on the way. They’ve also announced plans to introduce an Omega3producing GMO soybean that produces “fake fish oil.”

The mantra of big industrial ag and biotech is “We must feed the world,” and it’s repeated endlessly by many a “conventional” farmer. The irony of this is that it is largely industrial-scale agriculture that has made possible the dramatic rise in human population over the past 150 years or so, to the point that we are now clearly in population overshoot. The more we attempt to “feed the world,” the bigger that human world gets and the more impossible it is to feed. This is a recipe for global disaster, yet this is precisely the direction that big agribusiness is taking us. There is a name for this: madness.

This mindless drive for growth must come to an end, and it will. But will it mean the end of a way of farming for many conventional farmers? Yes, of course it will. The idea that farmers can grow whatever they want to grow, using whatever methods or technology they choose, and then sell their products anywhere they want or can is an artifact of an era that produced devastating long-term climate change and the greatest planetary extinction of species in 60 million years.

However, it is important to recognize that our conventional farmers are not to blame. They are actually victims of the very system that is driving us all over the cliff.

Here’s the bottom line on GMOs, from widely read French columnist Siv O’Neall: “The greatest threat to the future of food production in the world is the introduction of genetically engineered foods from the biotech industry. Contrary to their mendacious propagandized promises of solving the problem of world hunger through the so-called second green revolution, the biotech companies are instead in the process of destroying the world’s ecosystems, and thus the natural food chains and life cycles. Their goal is certainly not to solve any problem at all, but instead to fill the corporate coffers with the profits from selling their dangerous products to countries with already high mortality rates from malnutrition and starvation.”

Eat Local Week is happening now. For a schedule of events, click here.

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